Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you…
The principal object of the sabbatical year, at least in the eyes of the Levitical legislator, was not its economic usefulness in invigorating the soil, or any other of the many material advantages which have been attributed to it, but its spiritual significance as a general Sabbath devoted to God; for as the week is a complete cycle for the labour of man, so is the year for the cultivation and produce of the land; and man was to rest every seventh day, and the land every seventh year, in order that, by sacrificing one day's labour and one year's produce, the Israelite might express his gratitude to the mercy of God who blesses his works, and who sustains him during the temporary suspension of his efforts. He was to be reminded that the treasures of the earth were indeed created for the benefit of man, but that he should not use them selfishly and greedily; and on the other hand, that the soil had indeed been laden with God's curse, but that His bounty gives abundance and grants respite from wearying toil. Who will assert that these and similar abstract ideas, which underlie the laws of the sabbatical year were conceived in the early Mosaic age, or could be profitably conveyed to the untutored people who meant to worship their Deliverer by dancing round the golden image of a calf? The views of Philo, who gives the oldest comment on our laws, may be briefly stated. Moses thought the number seven, he observes, worthy of such reverence, being "the pure and ever virgin number," that he ordained in every seventh year the remission of debts in order "to assist the poor, and train the rich to humanity"; he commanded that then the people should leave the land fallow and untilled, and "deliberately let slip out of their hands certain and valuable revenues," in order to teach them not to be "wholly devoted to gain, but even willingly to submit to some loss," and thus to prepare them to bear patiently any mischance or calamity; he desired, moreover, to intimate that it was sinful to weigh down and oppress man with burdens, since even the earth, which has no feelings of pleasure or of pain, was to enjoy a period of relaxation; and that all benefits bestowed upon our fellow-men are sure to meet with reward and requital, since even the inanimate earth, after having been allowed to rest for one year, gratefully returns this favour by producing in the next year much larger crops than usual; just as athletes, by alternating recreation and exertion "as with a well-regulated harmony," greatly enhance their strength, and are at last able to perform wonders of endurance; or as nature has wisely ordained man to work and to sleep by turns, that he may not be worn oat by toil. But the lawgiver's chief object was "humanity, which he thought fit to weave in with every part of his legislation, stamping on all who study the Holy Scriptures a sociable and humane disposition." With this view he "raised the poor from their apparent lowly condition, and freed them from the reproach of being beggars," by "appointing times when, as if they bad been deriving a revenue from their own properties, they found themselves in the possession of plenty, being suddenly enriched by the gift of God, who had invited them to share with the possessors themselves in the number of the sacred seven." In these remarks the charitable and moral motives of the sabbatical year are admirably, but its theocratic tendencies imperfectly, unfolded; nor can Philo be expected to appreciate the gradual development manifest in the various Books of the Pentateuch: in the law of Leviticus charity is no more than an incidental and subordinate object.
(M. M. Kalisch, Ph. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.